Of all the mysteries surrounding the crash of the Air Florida jetliner into the icy Potomac River, one of the most puzzling is the identity of the unknown passenger seen by a helicopter rescue crew passing a lifeline to four other victims before he drowned.
Yesterday, the mystery only deepened. Was there a hero and who was it? Everyone seemed to have an idea and yet no one could be sure.
Friends, relatives and coworkers of crash victims who matched the description of the man seen by the helicopter crewmen described persons they thought would have been capable of dying heroically. But stories conflicted and evidence was circumstantial, and as the seventh day of rescue and salvage operations ended, it appeared that positive proof might never be found of the man's identity.
Joseph Stiley, one of Flight 90's five surviving passengers, told a press conference that he did not see any passenger repeatedly and heroically pass the lifeline to others. He said the unidentified man he did see was actually strapped to his seat inside the plane as it steadily sank to the bottom of the river.
Stiley, who suffered two broken legs in the crash, said he believes that the man he saw was Theodore H. Smolen, the 48-year-old manager of quality control for a division of Fairchild Industries Inc. in Germantown. Smolen, as it turns out, had a graying mustache and looked baldish when his hair wasn't combed, much as the U.S. Park Police rescue crew that recounted the heroism had said. Stiley, 42, said he asked the man to hand him several yellow life jackets.
"He said, 'I can't reach them. I'm strapped in and can't move.' "
Stiley said the man "was quiet, relatively calm. I talked to that man for a good 20 minutes." Despite the fact that the man was hindered in his movements, Stiley said the two of them as a "coordinated effort" tried to pass a lifeline to one of the other victims, later identified as Priscilla Tirado, who was rescued.
"She was the one in the worst shape, and she was the one who should get out first as far as I was concerned," Stiley said from his propped position in a wheelchair that was rolled into the lobby of the National Hospital for Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation for the press conference.
But no sooner had Stiley given his version of the frantic minutes after the jetliner plunged into the river than another survivor disputed the account.
Bert Hamilton, a coworker of Smolen's at Fairchild, said in a separate interview, "The individual I saw personally was not one of our group. I don't know who he was. I'm reasonably sure it was not Ted.
"This one gentleman, I recall him telling Joe Stiley , 'I don't think I'm going to make it,' " Hamilton said.
For their part, the two helicopter crewmen stuck to their account that they saw a bald passenger, with graying hair on the sides of his head and a similarly colored mustache, pass the lifeline to others before perishing.
However, M.E. (Gene) Windsor, the paramedic aboard the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, dubbed Eagle One by the park police, said through a National Park Service spokeswoman that the man definitely did not have a beard.
That appeared to rule out earlier speculation that the mystery hero was Arland D. Williams, a 46-year-old directing bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta and a balding man with a salt-and-pepper mustache. But Williams also had a beard.
Speculation largely centered on Williams because he is the only one of the 51 victims on whom autopsies have been performed who died of exposure and drowning. The rest died from the impact of the crash. Smolen's body has not yet been recovered.
Stiley, shown a picture of Williams, said the Atlanta man was definitely not the passenger he talked with in the water. But Hamilton, shown the same picture, said, "I would hate to speculate. It could very well have been the individual."
The rescue helicopter pilot, Donald W. Usher, said he would not try to identify anyone until all the bodies are recovered and the location of where they were found is known, according to Sandra Alley, the park service spokeswoman.
Stiley, clad in a blue print hospital gown with a yellow blanket covering the casts on his broken legs, criticized the rescue effort, saying he expected that a helicopter would have been lowered so close to the water that the victims could be pulled aboard, instead of trying to rescue most of the victims with a lifeline.
"We were pretty helpless by the time the helicopter got there," he said. "We could hardly move because of the cold. I was completely submerged."
Hospital officials said Stiley, who expects to have casts on his legs for about six months, is learning to lift himself from his bed to a chair before he can go home.